The Cavalier Daily
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University should bear rankings burden

THE COMMONWEALTH of Virginia is not at fault for the University's drop in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Though it would be easy to blame a lack of state funds for the University's slide in reputation and rank, it would be inaccurate. It is far more appropriate to attribute the drop to the spending choices the University has made. Hiring administrators instead of faculty and encouraging research instead of instruction: These are the causes of the University's diminishing academic reputation.

The Commonwealth actually has increased the amount of funds it provides to the University. Since 1998, the Commonwealth has given the University an additional $27 million, which translates to a 21-percent increase well above the 4-percent inflation rate for that period. The additional funds translated into an improved faculty resources rating in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Perhaps the Commonwealth could give more. But to say that the governor or the legislature has turned its back on the University and higher education in general would not be supported by the facts.

Also not supported by the facts is the much-touted 13 percent figure. University administrators make much out of their claim that the University receives only 13 percent of its operating budget from the Commonwealth. This number is nothing more than an accountant's sleight of hand.

According to the University's Office of Institutional Assessment, the Commonwealth provides 20 percent of the academic division's budget. Here is where the tricks come in. The academic division is everything but the Medical Center, and is the part of the University that U.S. News & World Report would actually care about.

The University includes the Medical Center in calculating the degree of state support, and voila, 13 percent. This is disingenuous because in the 1980s, in order to take advantages of certain changes in the Medicare code, the Commonwealth changed the way it provides funds to the University Hospital. The Medical Center still receives the same amount of money, but instead of coming from Richmond, it comes from the federal government.

Regardless of whether the Commonwealth is holding up its end of the bargain, the University must be held accountable for its spending priorities. Since 1990, the priority has not been the classroom. During University President John T. Casteen III's administration, the University's student population has grown by 326 students.

According to the Office of Institutional Assessment's Web site, over this same period the University has hired an additional 311 administrators. That is almost one for every new student. These are employees who never teach, and almost never have any contact with students. During the same time, the University hired only 155 new faculty members.

The funds simply are not going to instruction, as is evidenced by the fact that since 1990, instruction expenditures dropped as a percentage of the University's budget. Whether or not the Commonwealth provides one extra dollar or one million extra dollars to the University, those funds should be used to fill classrooms and not desks at Madison Hall.

The greatest distinction between the University and the University of California at Berkeley is in class size and the number of classes taught by teaching assistants. According to U.S. News and World Report, only 44 percent of the University's classes have fewer than 20 students, compared with 58 percent at Berkeley. As well, while no classes at Berkeley are taught by a teaching assistant, 20 percent of the University's classes are taught by TAs.

While the University actually has improved in many of the U.S. News & World Report categories, this is one where the school has slipped. So is "academic reputation." It does not take much imagination to understand that there is a direct correlation between the two.

Interestingly, the University has a far lower student-to-faculty ratio than Berkeley and has a higher percentage of full-time faculty.

Two conclusions can be made about these statistics. The University should have been hiring more professors instead of administrative helpers. Second, perhaps faculty members are not teaching enough classes. Clearly the University is a "research university," and as such, professors must publish original works of intellectual merit.

But the focus of the faculty should not be consulting fees and experiments. It should be the students in their classes. Why should an economics major be able to take a degree without ever being taught by a professor? Why should language students have to wait until their third or fourth year to have class with someone who has a Ph.D.?

Teaching students should be looked upon as the professor's pleasure, not an occupational hazard to be engaged in once a year.

The Commonwealth is not to blame for the University's ranking woes. The governor is not hostile to higher education. The state legislature has not turned a deaf ear to the University's pleas. Instead, it is the University's own priorities and choices that are at fault. While classes have gotten bigger and professors scarcer, the University has chosen to hire more administrators. Can you hear Nero and his fiddle?

(Sam Waxman's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily.)